's 1975 followup to his "comeback" record, Blood on the Tracks
Sessions for the "Desire" record began on July 28th, 1975, in New York City
. Dylan began with a very large band, including Eric Clapton
, Emmylou Harris
and an entire 8-piece British pub-rock band, Kokomo
. However, the results were uneven, and the bulk of the record was made with a stripped-down lineup of five musicians: Dylan, Emmylou Harris, violinist Scarlet Rivera
, and the rhythm section of bassist Rob Stoner
and drummer Howie Wyeth
"Desire" is completely unlike any other Dylan record. The only lead instruments on the record are Dylan's harmonica and Scarlet Rivera's violin, and the only guitar is Dylan's acoustic. This gives it a spare, haunting atmosphere reminiscent of Irish folk songs, or Gypsy ballads. Dylan also co-wrote the lyrics with Jacques Levy. Levy was an interesting character: Originally a clinical psychologist, he moved into musical theatre in the 1960s, and then into songwriting, co-writing several songs, the most famous being Chestnut Mare, with Roger McGuinn.
The record opens with Dylan's last great protest song, Hurricane. The version that appears on "Desire" was recorded several months later, with the full Rolling Thunder Revue band. The original take was replaced because Columbia Records feared a libel suit from Alfred Bello and Arthur Dexter Bradley.
Bello and Bradley were the men who, in Dylan and Levy's account, committed the murders that Rubin "Hurricane" Carter was jailed for. The lyrics as originally written claimed that Bello and Bradley robbed the bodies after the shooting.
Hurricane concerns itself mostly with the shooting and then the subsequent trial of Carter, in some of the most angry and eloquent language of Dylan's career ("and though they could not produce the gun, the DA said he was the one, who did the deed, and the all-white jury agreed!!"). The song is eleven verses and nearly nine minutes long, and rocks VERY hard for a song whose only electric instruments are the bass, and Scarlet Rivera's howling violin.
Thanks in part to Dylan's efforts, Carter was eventually given a new trial, and convicted again. A third trial, in the late 1980s, set him free.
"Desire" switches gears at this point, to Isis, a long piano-driven ballad with oblique lyrics concerning a mythical, goddess-like woman and a failed tomb-raiding expedition. Dylan and Levy claimed to have been influenced by the improvised sung poetry of Patti Smith.
Other standout tracks are the ballads One More Cup of Coffee and Sara, both minor-key violin dirges. "One More Cup of Coffee" is a valentine to a Gypsy princess ("your sister sees the future, like your mama and yourself; you never learned to read or write, there's no books upon your shelf"), and Sara is an emotionally overwrought love song, presumably to his wife, Sara.
Dylan drew some criticism for the song, mainly from Lester Bangs, and later claimed that the song wasn't meant to be taken literally. Elvis Costello, in a Rolling Stone interview several years later, defended Dylan, saying, "If he had meant us to take him literally, he would have included a verse that said: So-and-so, my ex-wife, is a real bitch, this is where she lives, go burn down her house."
The record is not without its missteps, most offensively the insipid travelogue Mozambique, and the 11-minute, historically not-quite-accurate tribute to slain gangster Joey Gallo.
"Desire" was released in January of 1976, and quickly rose to #1 on the album charts. It was to be Dylan's last #1 record. Hurricane was edited down to a 4-minute single that barely cracked the Top 25. It was later used in several films, among them Hurricane (natch) and Dazed and Confused, and still receives a small amount of classic rock airplay.
Desire, the tracklist:
4. One More Cup of Coffee
5. Oh, Sister
7. Romance in Durango
8. Black Diamond Bay